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ACS Chem Biol. 2016 Apr 15;11(4):1118-27. doi: 10.1021/acschembio.6b00081. Epub 2016 Mar 24.

Bacterial Riboswitches and Ribozymes Potently Activate the Human Innate Immune Sensor PKR.

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Department of Chemistry, Center for RNA Molecular Biology, The Pennsylvania State University , University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, United States.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, The Pennsylvania State University , University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, United States.


The innate immune system provides the first line of defense against pathogens through the recognition of nonspecific patterns in RNA to protect the cell in a generalized way. The human RNA-activated protein kinase, PKR, is a dsRNA binding protein and an essential sensor in the innate immune response, which recognizes viral and bacterial pathogens through their RNAs. Upon activation via RNA-dependent autophosphorylation, PKR phosphorylates the eukaryotic initiation factor eIF2α, leading to termination of translation. PKR has a well-characterized role in recognizing viral RNA, where it binds long stretches of double-stranded RNA nonsequence specifically to promote activation; however, the mechanism by which bacterial RNA activates PKR and the mode by which self RNA avoids activating PKR are unknown. We characterized activation of PKR by three functional bacterial RNAs with pseudoknots and extensive tertiary structure: the cyclic di-GMP riboswitch, the glmS riboswitch-ribozyme, and the twister ribozyme, two of which are ligand-activated. These RNAs were found to activate PKR with comparable potency to long dsRNA. Enzymatic structure mapping in the absence and presence of PKR reveals a clear PKR footprint and provides a structural basis for how these bacterial RNAs activate PKR. In the case of the cyclic di-GMP riboswitch and the glmS riboswitch-ribozyme, PKR appears to dimerize on the peripheral double-stranded regions of the native RNA tertiary structure. Overall, these results provide new insights into how PKR acts as an innate immune signaling protein for the presence of bacteria and suggest a reason for the apparent absence of protein-free riboswitches and ribozymes in the human genome.

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